“What’s in a Name?”

 

The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”  But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  So he said to him, “What is your name?”  And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”   Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”  But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?”  And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

 

Last weekend I attended my college reunion in upstate New York.  While I was, fortunately, able to recall most of my classmates’ names, I did find myself wishing I had pulled out my college yearbook ahead of time to refresh my memory.

The weekend before last, we held a meeting here at church for people interested in helping to put together a new pictorial directory.  We had, and continue to have, a great response – in part, I think, because so many people recognize the need for familiarity with one another, not the least of which is simply putting a name to a face.  This directory will also be especially helpful as we welcome an interim minister, and then a settled pastor, in the coming months and years.

When any of us are in a new place, with new people, usually the first thing we learn is a name.  Some people are especially good at remembering names.  Others have some trouble – as a child, I remember my father once introducing my brother Jim to someone, saying “I’d like you to meet my, uh, …(pause)…my son, Mike.”  (My father’s younger brother’s name is Mike, so I found his brain freeze pretty understandable.)

Our scripture reading for today is one of the richest passages in the Bible.  There’s imagery and meaning in it for at least a hundred sermons.  I’ll focus this morning on just one aspect of this story – the power of a name.

In this passage, we read of Jacob wrestling with a man, who has been identified by some as an angel, or as God in human form.  We never learn the name of this being.  But in this passage we can get a clue to some of the significance of a name.

So [the man] said to him, “What is your name?”  And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel…”   Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.”  But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?”  And there he blessed him.

Jacob and the angel, or God, have been wrestling with each other all night long.  Yet all they seem to be fighting over is learning each other’s name.  What makes a name so important?

In ancient times, people commonly believed that to know someone’s name, and especially to give someone a name, gave one power over them.  Names in Jacob’s culture revealed something of the person’s very character and sometimes their destiny.  A name wasn’t just a label or identification, but it signified the heart and soul of a being.  By sharing their names, people were somehow sharing themselves.  I think our names are still just as important to us today.

For example, when a child is born, new parents rarely pick just any old name out of a hat for their newborn.  I suspect most parents spend at least hours, if not weeks and months, deciding a name for their baby.

My maiden name is Driver.  My dad describes his own father as “born in North Carolina to tobacco farmers and Baptists whose primary pursuits were marrying widows and widowers.”  As one of an apparently indeterminate number of children in his family, my Grandpa Driver never had a first name.  His parents never named him.  A birth certificate reading “Driver (dash) Boy” was all he ever got.  Although I called him “Grandpa,” and my father called him “Dad,” I remember his wife and friends calling him simply “Driver.”  “How’re you doing, Driver?” they would say.  “What can I get for you, Driver?”  That’s it.

When I first learned this family history as a child, I remember feeling terribly sorry for Grandpa.  Something in me wondered “If he doesn’t have a name, how can he ever BE somebody?”

Nowadays, most of us are identified by number sooner than by name.  Social security numbers, credit card numbers, school and work ID numbers, the all-important cell phone number – the list is endless.  In his classic novel 1984, George Orwell described a society in which citizens were referred to by number – just one of the similarities between that book and life today.

For example, if you call up your electric company or bank and say, “Hi, this is Barbara Keast,” they act as though you’re speaking Greek.  They respond by asking for your account number.  AFTER they’ve confirmed your existence, THEN they return to the phone and in a patronizing voice say, “Yes, Ms. Keast.  How can we help you?”

A point I want to make today is one both the adults and, perhaps more importantly, the young people in our congregation can understand:  Calling someone by name is important.  It’s an act of recognition.  To call someone by name is an acknowledgement that that person not only exists, but that they have meaning, and dignity, and value.  No one likes to be called “Hey, you!”  Addressing someone by name says to them, “You’re a real person to me, not just another face in the crowd.”  When we don’t recognize a person by name, it’s easier for us to dismiss them – to ignore the fact that they’re unique human beings, each created in the image of God.

Knowing people by name is not just a simple, personal matter.  Almost 30 years ago this month we saw what tragedy can result when people become anonymous.  During the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, troops with assault rifles and tanks killed at least several hundred protestors. The violence and suppression was immortalized by the image of a lone man, holding  a bag of belongings in each hand, standing in front of a column of tanks.  He eventually climbed up onto the turret of the lead tank to speak to the soldiers inside.  How easy it was for soldiers to fire upon people who were only a nameless crowd.  What’s not as often recalled is that during the demonstrations, the troops from in and around Beijing who spoke with the people, one on one, who knew them by name, as well as those who encountered that lone man defying a whole column of tanks – those soldiers didn’t shoot.

What would the world be like if each of us were, at every moment, known and recognized by name?  Would we work harder?  Would we take more pride in what we do and how we do it?  Would we take more responsibility for our actions?  I think we would.

In a church and small community like Littleton, people have the opportunity and the ability to call each other by name.  What a blessing!  And what a responsibility!  For to be called by name also calls for a response.

To be called by name means that we’re known – by others, and by God.  Hear these words from the book of the prophet Isaiah:  “It is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.”  “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

In calling people by name, God makes a claim upon our lives.  We’re not only known and loved, we’re called to know and love others.  As a church, we invite people to come in and be reminded once again of their names, their identities as children of God, so we may all go out into the world as God’s own.  We’re called to simply reach out to others by name – a small act, but one with huge significance.

God calls us by name.  And however we choose to respond – in small, simple acts, or with extravagant generosity of spirit – I believe that, like Jacob, we will all receive God’s blessing.  Amen.